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Richard Blystone: the poet laureate of network news

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Posted: Apr 19, 2018 10:50 AM
Updated: Apr 19, 2018 10:50 AM

From the killing fields in Cambodia to the burning oil fields of Kuwait -- if the narrative of news had a poet laureate, it was Richard Blystone.

Richard passed away earlier this week, aged 81.

A giant of his generation, he was humble, witty and serious. Warm with his colleagues, tough on tyrants.

Blystone had an unrivaled talent for cutting to the truth in poignant prose that his mellifluous tones could lift and lay over his audience with the lightest of touches.

He began his career in Atlanta, writing for the Associated Press amid the upheaval of the civil rights struggle in 1965. From there, he moved to New York and then Saigon in 1970. Still with AP, he was sucked immediately into the vortex of the Vietnam war.

After this, he moved to Bangkok, becoming AP's bureau chief, covering conflict in Cambodia, and later -- after its fall to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge -- returned to the United States before taking up a post with AP in London.

It was there, in 1980, that he would join CNN as one of its only overseas correspondents, just weeks before the fledgling network went on the air.

He continued the thread of his early career of covering armed conflict: Lebanon's civil war; the Iran-Iraq war; Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait; Somalia; Northern Ireland; the fall of Communism; Yugoslavia's collapse; and the Balkan wars in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

He had a unique ability to transport his audience with him, writing of the oil fires following the 1991 Gulf War in Kuwait: "It seemed as though if hell had a national park, it would look like this."

His great skill was not to tell you what you could already see on your screen, but to elevate the meaning of those images.

His sparse sentences scattered through the images of those flaming fields of sand today still speak volumes, enduring truths about the heart of man.

"It doesn't say much for God's favorite creatures ... one man decreed this, but many men methodically carried it out ... none forbore asking what good could come of it ... let alone what harm ... dark simple monumental malice, no possible benefit for anyone."

Unlike many in his field, Blystone's talents didn't rely on calamity to wet his well of words: he was equally at home covering politics, pastimes -- even pets.

Nothing he did was dull, but why he did it is perhaps best answered, once again in his own words.

Writing of the cholera epidemic following the Rwandan genocide in 1994: "Some people will find these pictures disturbing until the repetition has deadened the nerves that first shocked. The pictures shout something -- and feeling powerless, some people will avert their eyes."

He didn't forget what he saw and was willing to risk his life -- and bare his soul -- so that others could see it too.

He is survived by his wife Helle, three children -- John, Julia and Daniel -- and one grandchild.

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